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News24.com | ‘Panic’ in Britain As Omicron Crisis Bites Ahead of Christmas

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Soaring Omicron cases left Britons scrambling Thursday to make alternative Christmas plans, faced with cancellations, long queues for vaccines and France shutting the border to UK visitors.

Britain recorded a second consecutive record daily number of new Covid infections at more than 88,000 but the government has so far stopped short of formal limits on socialising as it awaits further evidence of the severity and impact of the new Omicron variant.

Last year, Christmas celebrations were drastically curtailed after the Alpha variant swept the country. Britons had hoped that this year would be different, but cases have again shot up since the Omicron strain of the virus first emerged.

The UK government last week updated its guidance to advise people to work from home if they can, while mandating they must wear masks in some settings.

READ | Amid scandals, UK PM Johnson faces major test in local election

But it has stopped short of recommending the cancellation of social gatherings such as Christmas parties, with embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead recommending that people get booster vaccines, Covid tests and act cautiously.

Recent days have seen long lines outside vaccination centres in London and other towns and cities, as people heeded Johnson’s call to get jabbed again.

But at the same time, pubs, theatres and other entertainment venues have reported rising cancellations — and concerns about their viability — as the case numbers continue to climb.

From the top down, people were changing plans. Queen Elizabeth II, 95, cancelled her traditional pre-Christmas family lunch next week, despite Johnson insisting such gatherings could still go ahead.

It was a similar tale of cancellations in pubs and restaurants.

‘Anxiety-provoking’ 

“We had some cancellations here,” Patrick Mullighan, 64, owner of the White Hart pub in east London, told AFP.

He said his chef had caught the virus, forcing the kitchen to close, while 25 bookings for this Sunday had dropped to 10.

“It’s like this all the way the through the book,” he added, estimating turnover could be down by around a quarter for the normally busy period in the run-up to Christmas and New Year.

“It represents a lot of money but… as long as people are still buying drinks, that will be good. I’m always worried but what can we do? You’ve got to carry on.”

Productions of hit West End musicals are also suffering, with Hamilton and The Lion King announcing further cancellations due to “ongoing Covid-enforced absences” in the cast and crew.

READ | France bans all non-essential travel from the UK as Omicron cases surge there

In a bid to curb the spread of Omicron across the Channel, the French government announced it would ban non-essential travel to and from the UK from Saturday, for both unvaccinated and fully jabbed non-residents.

The sudden announcement sparked anxiety and even panic among would-be travellers scrambling to cross the Channel in time for Christmas.

“I have friends who are panicking,” London-based Marie Geoffroy, 43, told AFP at St Pancras station as she prepared to board a Eurostar train.

“It’s anxiety-provoking, these last-minute changes, it makes you feel like you’re being held hostage,” she added.

“I know lots of people who have been able to change their tickets because they can, but others can’t afford it.”

‘Prioritise what matters’

In the run-up to the festive period, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty urged people to “prioritise what really matters to them and then cut down on the things that don’t”.

“I wouldn’t want to say to people they should do a particular thing,” he told a panel of MPs, insisting the government and its advisers like him were united in their approach.

“I think it really should be for people to make those choices.”

Johnson has set a highly ambitious target of offering a third vaccine dose to all adults by the end of the month, requiring around a million jabs a day.

Health officials have been scaling up their efforts through this week, saying Thursday they had administered nearly 750,000 into arms the previous day.

But public health messaging and compliance has been undermined by weeks of controversy around claims that Johnson’s staff held Christmas parties last year, despite telling the public to cancel theirs and subjecting much of the country to strict rules on socialising.

In a sign of the scale of discontent with Johnson – following multiple wide-ranging scandals – around 100 Conservatives lawmakers voted earlier this week against introducing vaccine passes for nightclubs and sports venues.

The measures passed anyway with the support of the opposition Labour party.

Industry body the Music Venue Trust said Thursday that grassroots music venues are at risk of “permanent closure” after attendances dropped by nearly a quarter in the last week.

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News24.com | Thousands Protest in Madrid Against NATO Summit

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A crowd demonstrates against NATO.

Photo by Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto

Carrying the hammer and sickle flags of the former Soviet Union, thousands protested in Madrid on Sunday against a NATO summit which will take place in the Spanish capital next week.

Amid tight security, leaders of the member countries will meet in Madrid between 29-30 June as the organisation faces the unprecedented challenge of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO is expected to consider the bid, opposed by alliance-member Turkey, for Finland and Sweden to join.

The Nordic nations applied in the wake of the Russian assault on Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the war a special military operation he says in part responds to the accession to NATO of other countries near post-Soviet Russia’s borders since the 1990s.

READ | Biden said Putin’s goal of weakening NATO by invading Ukraine backfired spectacularly

“Tanks yes, but of beer with tapas,” sang demonstrators, who claimed an increase in defence spending in Europe urged by NATO was a threat to peace.

“I am fed up (with) this business of arms and killing people. The solution they propose is more arms and wars and we always pay for it. So, no NATO, no (army) bases, let the Americans go and leave us alone without wars and weapons,” said Concha Hoyos, a retired Madrid resident, told Reuters.

Another protester, Jaled, 29, said NATO was not the solution to the war in Ukraine.

Organisers claimed 5,000 people joined the march, but authorities in Madrid put the number at 2 200.

READ | Pandor says Finland’s bid to join NATO indicates a decline in international security

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares said in a newspaper interview published on Sunday that the summit would also focus on the threat from Europe’s southern flank in Africa, in which he said Russia posed a threat to Europe.

“The foreign ministers’ dinner on the 29th will be centred on the southern flank,” he told El Pais newspaper.

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News24.com | Turkey Police Break up Istanbul Pride March, Detain Dozens: AFP

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Hakan Akgun/dia images

Turkish police on Sunday forcibly intervened in a Pride march in Istanbul, detaining dozens of demonstrators and an AFP photographer, AFP journalists on the ground said.

The governor’s office had banned the march around Taksim square in the heart of Istanbul but protesters gathered nearby under heavy police presence earlier than scheduled.

Police detained protesters, loading them into buses. AFP journalists saw two buses of people who had been held, including AFP’s chief photographer Bulent Kilic, who had been handcuffed from the back.

Kilic, who was also detained last year during the Pride march, is currently in police custody.

Hundreds of protesters carrying rainbow flags pressed ahead with the rally in defiance of police.

Although homosexuality has been legal throughout the period of the modern Turkish republic, LGBTQ individuals point to regular harassment and abuse.

Istanbul Pride has taken place every year since 2003.

The last march which took place without a ban – in 2014 – drew tens of thousands of participants in one of the biggest LGBTQ events in the majority Muslim region.

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News24.com | NASA Blasts Off From Australian Outback in ‘historic’ Launch

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NASA’s first-ever launch from a commercial site outside of the United States blasted off from Australia’s Outback late Sunday, in a “historic” moment for the country’s space industry.

In the first of three planned launches from the Arnhem Space Centre, the rocket, carrying technology likened to a “mini Hubble” telescope, lifted off — blasted about 350 kilometres (218 miles) into the night sky.

“It is a momentous occasion for us as a company in particular, but it’s historic for Australia,” Equatorial Launch Australia CEO Michael Jones told AFP ahead of the lift-off.

Jones, whose company owns and operates the launch site in the far north of Australia, described it as a “coming out” party for the country’s space industry and said the chance to work with NASA was a milestone for commercial space firms in the country.

After a series of rain and wind delays, the suborbital sounding rocket soared into the sky to study x-rays emanating from the Alpha Centauri A and B systems.

After reaching its apogee, the rocket’s payload was to capture data on the star systems before parachuting back to earth.

READ | NASA is slowly powering down the Voyager probes. Here are 18 photos from its 45-year mission.

According to NASA, the launch offers a unique glimpse of the distant systems and unlocked fresh possibilities for scientists.

“We’re excited to be able to launch important science missions from the Southern Hemisphere and see targets that we can’t from the United States,” Nicky Fox, NASA’s Heliophysics Division director in Washington, said on announcing the mission.

Jones said the unique location had made preparations hard, with years of work to get regulatory approval and the need to haul rockets on barges to the launch site – about 28 hours drive from Darwin in northern Australia.

“I think for the team, it’s gonna be, you know, a huge relief that it’s done,” he said.

READ | ‘Giant leap forward’ – South Korea space rocket launch puts satellites in orbit

But with the next launch already looming on July 4, the break would be short-lived.

“We need to, you know, dust ourselves off, take a day off and then get back into it in readiness for the next launch because it’s just as important.”

It is the first NASA rocket to launch from Australia since 1995, and the project was hailed as the start of a “new era” for the country’s space industry by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

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